Early this year, I was saddened to learn of the death of one of my favorite authors, M.C. Beaton. I’m not alone. Beaton (real name Marion Chesney Gibbons) was a prolific writer whose mystery novels rank among the most popular of the genre, both in book sales and library checkouts. Many writers have published glowing obituaries, commenting on her superhero-like ability to churn out more than hundreds of books in a career that began with her first Regency romance novel in 1979 and her first mystery in 1985.
For mystery fans, the Hamish Macbeth and the Agatha Raisin series are well known. Hamish, a laid back, lazy, but bright police constable in a tiny Scottish village, appeared first in Death of a Gossip. The way Beaton told it to The Scotsman years later, the idea for the first book came from a salmon fishing vacation she and her husband took in her native Scotland:
“There were only 11 of us… and there was this woman who was driving me mad. She was very clumsy and very snobbish. She got fishing hooks embedded in people’s necks and didn’t apologise. So while everyone else was thinking about whether they would catch a big one today, I was thinking, wouldn’t her body look nice rolling down the salmon pools with a leader tied round her neck.”
After Beaton and her family moved from Scotland to the English Cotswolds a new amateur detective appeared in Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death in 1992. Based on an incident when Beaton herself bought a quiche from a local bakery and passed it off as her own at her son’s school fundraiser, the prickly, judgmental, and insecure Agatha Raisin soon joined Hamish Macbeth as one of the author’s most successful sleuths.
And, yet, if someone referred to her novels as ‘cozy mysteries’, she bristled. In 2019, she told the Crime Hub that labeling her books as cozies “…is patronizing and implies that my books, which are easy to read, must be easy to write….To keep writing in clear, well-balanced sentences takes a lot of hard work and if anyone doesn’t want a Glasgow kiss, swallow that opinion and put it where the sun don’t shine.”
While I will always defer to the author and have no desire to find out what a Glasgow kiss is, I wondered whether her mysteries fit in the cozy genre or are these stories something outside of it: not cozy but not straight up detective novels either?
Time to play Compare and Contrast. What makes a mystery a cozy? How do Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin fit into the genre? Or, like the author said, they don’t?
Murder. Straight up, always murder. In a cozy the crime happens off stage and the protagonist is normally the one to find the body. Blood and gore are virtually nonexistent or kept at a minimum. The sleuth is often pulled into solving the crime because it hits close to home with suspicion falling on them or someone they love. This is especially true in the first book of the series.
Do the Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin books follow this? Yes. Yes, they do.
The typical cozy protagonist is an amateur detective with enough time on their hands to solve the murder. They often have jobs with flexible hours, like running a bookstore or bakery or yarn shop, or they have no jobs at all. They are not normally part of law enforcement or the medical examiner office, although they may have family or friend connections in those areas. Most of all, they are extremely likeable with some character flaws, but nothing to repel the reader.
Hamish is in law enforcement and, when cases happen on his patch, he is compelled to solve them. But he is also highly unambitious, liking his simple village life, and often lets others take credit for his detective work. He is likeable, but so unassuming that others think him dimwitted.
Agatha, on the other hand, is not a very likeable character. She is prickly, vain, man-hungry, and stubborn as a mule. But readers also see a vulnerability that she tries to mask with her nastiness. Beaton purposely invented an unlikeable character that had readers rooting for her success.
Typical cozy sleuths? Not really.
Small towns and villages reign supreme in a cozy mystery, although larger cities have been used. The trick is to keep the geographic area and suspect pool small. Disruptions often come from outsiders. The setting is a character. To be a successful cozy, the reader must connect with the locale.
The village of Lochdubh in the Scottish Highlands follows this rule. Tiny and picturesque, Hamish’s beat takes in several other remote villages, opening the pool of murderous possibilities.
Same for the village of Carsley in the Agatha Raisin mysteries. Agatha dwells in an area comprised of small Cotswold villages, interconnected relationships, and endless gossip.
The Supporting Cast
The people who follow the protagonist from book to book are often quirky but loveable. To the sleuth and, ultimately, loyal readers, these characters become family.
Do the Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin cast of characters fit this description? They do, but with a twist. Especially in the Agatha stories, they seem to be the ‘normal’ people who counterbalance Agatha’s prickliness and insecurity.
Beaton’s mysteries are a hybrid. Yes, they are easy to read and, for anyone who has practiced long, hard hours making something look easy, this is a great achievement. As I read Beating About the Bush, the latest Agatha Raisin mystery, I am reminded that Beaton’s worlds are neither typical cozies or straight-up, hard-edged detective stories. They are different.
And that difference makes them a joy to read.
M.C. Beaton, you are missed.